My friend Edward Said lost his courageous battle with leukemia last week, and so the world feels hopelessly thin from the loss of a man who was—and not just to me—possibly the greatest intellectual of the last 50 years. Indefatigable, irascible, and devastatingly charming, he leaves legions of followers and fans in every corner of the world. I am lost without him.
I first encountered Edward in 1991 in an elevator in New York. I had just left Canada for graduate school at Columbia, and looked forward to studying with the author of Orientalism. Arabs in the West endure unending vilification and cultural distortions. Orientalism helped me to understand the stereotypes and connect them to imperialism and questions of power.
We were both headed to a see a visiting lecturer. I introduced myself to him, and then the doors opened and the speaker, an old friend of Edward’s, entered. He introduced me, placing his hand on my shoulder as if we had known each other for years. I was thrilled.
Said was incorruptible. He rejected slavish devotion to any ideology, and wore the label “humanist” like a badge. All ideologies, in the end, simply dehumanized, Said believed. He would frequently enlist the help of the poet Aimé Césaire, who wrote, “No race has a monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength/and there is room for everyone at the convocation of conquest.”
To get to the convocation, one was expected to fight, and in his politics Said was equally veracious. Yes, he belonged to the Palestine National Council, but as an independent. He dreamt of a time when Palestinians would be free of the horrors and humiliations of Israeli occupation, but he excoriated Arafat’s leadership for its failures. Palestine was for him the world’s “touchstone case for human rights”; Zionism was a colonial project, and Palestinians its victims. Predictably, these views earned him many enemies.
I remember sitting in Philosophy Hall one day in the fall of 1993. He walked in and told me proudly how he had spurned the offer to attend the White House signing ceremony for the Oslo agreements, which he termed “an instrument of Palestinian capitulation,” negotiated in secret by a feeble leadership that had turned “a national liberation movement into a small-town government.” The agreement turned the PLO into Israel’s enforcer, he wrote, “an unhappy prospect for most Palestinians.” I remember the loneliness he felt in his position. Everyone thought him a knee-jerk rejectionist. He didn’t care. He knew he was right, and now nearly everyone does too.
My professor hated sloppiness, in dress, in thinking, in writing. He was impatient with academic jargon and demanded that we discard it. One day, in our graduate seminar on intellectuals and power, a student said, “Discourse.” Said exploded. Then the student nervously mumbled, “Foucault.” “That’s right,” Said scoffed. “That’s Foucault’s word. Where are yours?” Jargon corrupts our language and our thinking, he cautioned. Find your own language. Develop your own authority. Our age called for “secular criticism,” the ability to question all orthodoxies not for what they are in the abstract but for what they do in the world. He taught us Theodor Adorno, who wrote, “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”
And he lived in the world as an exile, a condition from which he drew strength. Exile, as a metaphorical state, was something we all should aspire to, Said contended, since it gives one an outsider’s perspective on the world. He was a theoretician who hated theory because he loved people. A true public intellectual, he would say, possesses not just access to the media but a public (constituency would be his term) to which he or she is accountable. Ground yourself in the world.
You could feel his commitment even in his legendary temper. Once, after returning from Gaza, he sat me in his office and recalled a meeting with Palestinian officials. “Did they give you a hard time?” I asked innocently. “Give me a hard time? I gave them a hard time. Shame on you, Moustafa!” He roared, and I smiled. There was something warm even in his rebukes.
We relied on Edward Said. And we must stand collectively in his place and fight tirelessly, as he did. There is no alternative—but I miss him so.
Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor at Brooklyn College, edited The Edward Said Reader with Andrew Rubin.